It was time for another World Archaeological Congress(WAC). This happens every 4 years. I got involved in this astute organization when I was working in the heritage conservation sector. The more I learn about WAC, the more respect I develop for it. Some of the things that I like about WAC include: a commitment to justice issues, highlighting community issues in heritage conservation, engaging with politics, supporting indigenous peoples, working to decolonize the practice of archaeology, and the opening up of the conference to non-academics (especially communities). This time round the congress was to be held in Kyoto. I had never been to Asia, so I was looking forward to it. As usual, such trips start with the gruesome process of obtaining a visa. Sigh!
Visa application sequence of events:
Step 1: Get all the letters of invitation and a series of other documents from your host – at least 2 months before the proposed date of travel
Step 2: Present these and other documents to the Embassy and make the payment. This one was not a ridiculous figure (read rip off) like those charged by the so-called “developed countries”.
Step 3: Wait for the verdict(with daily prayers to your ancestors for a positive one)
Step 4: If you get a positive verdict you go to collect the visa and hope they have not made a mistake in say, spelling your names or dates of entry and exit.
This visa application was mildly brutal. The guard at the building was extremely unpleasant – why do guards at Embassies behave like this? They act as though they are the ones to either give you or deny you the visa.
I get the visa. Phew! I Book the flight and leave for Kyoto via Osaka. Osaka is hot and humid.
The next hurdle: Immigration.
I get to the counter and hand my passport over to the guy behind the counter. He takes his time to study my passport and looks at me. The interrogation begins:
Immigration officer: Where are you going?
Immigration officer: What for?
Me: For a conference, the World Archaeological Congress
Immigration officer: What do you do for a living?
Me: I am a Ph.D. student
Immigration officer: Where is your letter of invitation?
I reach out for the letter of invitation from my bag and I hand it over to him.
He scans through it and looks at me, then looks at the passport, then looks at the letter of invitation and takes his time to read through it. The line is building up behind me and I am too ashamed to turn and look at the people in the line. I can see from the corner of my eye that they are wondering why it is taking so long(by the way, the people who were ahead of were not held up. No prizes for guessing what they looked like).I am getting irritated and ANGRY! The immigration officer continues to fiddle with the letter and passport while I stand there looking like a criminal. It is as though he does not believe that any of the documents I have given him are real. I am getting a headache now. Finally, he hands over the documents to me without saying a word and I grab them from his hand and move on. No, thank you, no nothing! I am not going to thank anyone for mistreating me. I am pissed off! He actually thinks I want to come and live in this country illegally? He has profiled me and judged me – just because of the colour of my skin.
The train station is chaotic. Thankfully there are people to help. I get my ticket and board the train to Kyoto. I look around to see just how great this country is that the immigration officer would actually think I would leave everything behind so that I can come and enjoy the bounty of their nation. All I see are rice paddies. We have these in Mwea. NKT! I get to Kyoto and get into the subway to the outskirts of the city. It is hot. I am melting. Someone actually thinks I want to come and live in this heat illegally? At this point, I think of Nairobi’s glorious weather and miss home.
I get to the hotel and get to my room. Everything in Japan is tiny. I understand it has to do with earthquake preparedness and minimalist living. We start with all day council meetings (I sit in the WAC council as the senior representative for east and southern Africa) before the conference begins. We go to have lunch at an amazing Thai restaurant. The food is really good. Kyoto is so clean. There is no trash lying around and yet there are no trash cans. They have cultivated a culture of keeping the city clean and orderly. People obey traffic rules to the hilt. There are no beggars on the streets. There is a lot of bowing. There is no tipping at restaurants or anywhere else- they do not go blindly adopting western cultures that do not make sense. The service is great.
The conference begins and run around from one session to the other trying to catch as many presentations as possible. There are about 500 people in attendance. At the middle of the week, we have free time to have mid-congress tours. All those that had been put on offer by the organizers are sold out, so my colleague and I decide to do our own exploring. Armed with a map we embark on a vigorous sightseeing mission. There are lots of temples! We go to a bamboo forest. Beautiful! We have green tea ice cream to crown the sightseeing tour. Japan is a very interesting country – a good fusion of tradition and modernity. They demonstrate that you do not have to discard your culture/heritage in order to “modernize.”
Back to the conference. I give my presentation about community engagement in heritage conservation in the Mt. Elgon area. I get a couple of questions at the end – mainly on how to keep the community motivated and or engaged/how to mobilize communities.
Every time I met with an African colleague I asked them about their immigration and visa application issues. I knew of one Kenyan who could not get the visa. My colleague from Nigeria tells me that she was also held up at immigration. “It is just the way it is my sister, o. What can we do? There is nothing we can do. They think we want to come and live here.” I tell her that I think we should say something. We should speak about this issue. That we should not suffer in silence and say, that is just the way it is. My colleague from Zambia tells me that their colleague from Nigeria was thoroughly interrogated at immigration. My colleague from Zimbabwe tells me that it was easy from him to get a visa because he was applying from a Nordic country. The he goes on to say “our brothers and sisters applying from African countries have a really hard time.” Somehow, if you are African and are applying from the “developed” countries it is easier. It is as though you become more human by being associated with those countries and not African countries. Your value increases. Travelling as an African is no easy task. In addition to the economic barriers of getting to conferences, you have to overcome other structural hurdles such as those presented by immigration and visa applications.
It is time for the final plenary. This one brings all the participants together so that they can discuss the major decisions/resolutions emerging from the conference. It is also during this time that the next host country is decided/voted upon. Prague wins the bid to host the next WAC. The president asks if anyone has a question for the next host.
I raise my hand and put my question/issue forward.
Congratulations on winning the bid to host the next WAC conference. I would like to suggest that you as a host country, find a way to make it easier for Africans to attend the congress. It is always more difficult for Africans to attend conferences because:
- It is hard to obtain a visa. I know people who were supposed to attend this conference but did not because they could not obtain a visa
- Once you obtain a visa you have to deal with immigration. I was, for example, held up at immigration for close to 15 minutes. It was not just me. Other African participants experienced the same. We are treated like potential illegal immigrants.
This is injustice. This is racial profiling. WAC stands for social justice and I hope you can stand against this.
The room bursts into applause.
My colleague from Prague is on the dais. He takes the microphone and says: “you are a human being, you should not be treated like that” we do not have this problem at Prague immigration. The president of WAC (the current one is Japanese) apologizes for this issue and says that WAC can issue letters to African participants.
I interject and say that letters will not necessarily help. It would be better to inform immigration/people at the ports of entry.
Somebody from the audience chimes in and says: “This is a problem that WAC is aware of because it has been there for a long time…Britain is actually the worst. They treat people appallingly.” There is a lot of chattering in the hall now. The president suggests that I should present the issue as an agenda for discussion in the council. I agree. The plenary moves forward.
At the end of the plenary, my colleague from Norway comes to me and shares his experience of travelling with an African colleague. They were going to attend a conference in Europe. He says to me:
My colleague from Zimbabwe had with him a full stack of papers documenting various permissions, invitations, and so on. But when we got to the immigration point he was always stopped and interrogated and we always had to wait for him. So, you are right letters do not help.
I leave Japan on the scheduled day and time! I sit next to a Russian man on the plane. He tells me more about Japanese people and culture. His wife is Japanese. We somehow got talking about politics and the church. He asks my view about the latter and I say to him “I think the is too corrupt.” Then he says “oh please, shake my hand.” We shake hands and he tells me about the nastiness of the church in Russia. He has sneaked in two cans of beer which has to drink discretely since the airline were are flying in in the kind that sells you everything – from earphones, to ipads, to alcohol (and it’s not like the flight is even cheap(er)).
Ni hayo to kwa sasa/That is it for now. Stay tuned for more stories.